Barcodes and your Collection

Benitta MacLachlin

Benitta MacLachlin

January 15, 2015

Originally posted on blogger 9/5/2014

Just recently the ubiquitous barcode turned 40. Yes, amazingly it has been 40 years since retailers started scanning products at the grocery store till. At this point you might be asking: “How does this relate to museums?”

Prior to using barcodes, I imagine (I don’t actually remember – I was very young) that checkout clerks would have punched in a code or a price for every single item, as many grocers still do for fresh produce. That would have taken more time, and the margin of error would have been greater than when simply scanning a barcode.

Back then they didn’t have self-check-out. Hmm, there are pros and cons to that too – speed versus a slower pace of life, meeting the neighbors versus avoiding the neighbors… another post for another forum, I’m afraid.

So how does all this relate to museums?

If any of you were in Seattle attending AAM in May, you’ll remember that all our delegate badges had QR codes that when scanned provided exhibitors and others with your contact details. This was perfect for those who forgot their business cards, or who simply didn’t want to carry around a bunch of extra stuff. All the information needed was available in this little black and white graphic.

QR codes can work the same way for your museum – and in fact, do work this way for some museums already. Use your handheld scanner to scan the barcode discreetly placed on your object and have your collection management system go directly to that record in your database. All the details for that object are there at your fingertips – from the Object ID to the provenance, the most recent conservator’s report, or who moved the object to its current location and when it was moved. (If you read the posting from May on Inventory Control, you’ll recall that this can be done from anywhere as long as you have Wi-Fi and a tablet).

Barcodes make relocating objects easier too. Scan the object barcodes, and then scan the barcode for the specific location. You can also scan the barcode for the staff member doing the moving. Yes, it is a little 1984 but it’s easier than going into each record, and typing in or selecting the staff member’s initials or name each time! And I’m not suggesting that staff members have to wear their barcodes on their persons (certainly not on their foreheads!). A sheet of cardboard containing everyone’s barcodes would probably do quite nicely. Or the barcode could be stuck to the back of security passes or employee ID cards for self-scanning.

Oh, and did I mention that each location can be barcoded as well? If your location consists of a room with storage units, and each unit has individual shelves, and perhaps each shelf has drawers or containers, each of those locations – tracked already in your collection management system – can have its own barcode.

So, moving objects can sound like this:

Three Objects: beep, beep, beep

One Location: beep

One Staff member: beep

Other than the cool sound effects, why would you want to barcode your museum collection, particularly since the initial project to barcode every single object can be daunting, and some objects (I bet you can already visualize which ones) can be a challenge to barcode?

The payoff for short term pain is long term gain in terms of a more efficient inventory process, greater accuracy when tracking objects, time saved during data entry, and the benefits of linking all that information to just one scannable graphic.

And really, the short term pain isn’t all that painful. Purchase your barcodes, label your objects, and scan each barcode to link them to an object record in your collection management system. Even easier and more cost effective, generate barcodes for each object record already in your collection management system, print them off and then label your objects with the corresponding barcode. See, not so bad. I can hear the beep, beep, beep now!

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